Daryl Morey runs the Houston Rockets like a fantasy league. That’s one of the rallying cries of Morey’s detractors, along with other bon mots like, “he treats players like assets” and “Houston has a crisis of leadership. The problem isn’t that the detractors are wrong. The problem is that they’re probably onto something, and it just bit the Rockets in the backside. But why it all blew up? “Why” is the most important question of all, and it’s been lost in the shuffle. The why is something fans of NBA video games have known about for years. The why is staring us in the face.
There’s a reason that Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry and now Chandler Parsons have found other homes. It’s also the same reason that Ish Smith and Jeff Adrien and Joey Dorsey are back in Houston. In the end, it’s a problem born out not of failure, but of the hazards of success. It’s a problem that plagues every would-be dynasty in an NBA 2K association mode. It’s the intersection of personal pride, talent evaluation, player development and the salary cap.It’s the video game problem, and it’s not going to stop any time soon.
Putting aside any speculation about backroom deals handcuffing houston into letting Parsons become a free agent a year early, Parsons is a perfect example of why it’s so hard to hold onto complementary talent for any team, especially the Rockets. Chandler Parsons was picked in the second round and signed to the kind of team-friendly (read: cheap) deal that comes with that territory. He turned out to be a tremendous value for the money, and a total success for Houston. His name became synonymous with second round steals and Houston was lauded for having him on such a low contract.
What everyone forgot was the thing that Daryl Morey is accused of forgetting: that contract is a person. When Parsons expressed his feeling that Houston should have anointed him as the third star, he taught us that his fate in Houston was likely sealed before the off-season even began. Like so many players in Houston before, Parsons wasn’t a star. He’s a great player, to be sure, and a ludicrous steal at under a million dollars a year, but he’s not now and probably will never be worth the $15 million dollar per year contract he received.
We know how his situation played out, but what would have happened had Houston exercised their team option and held onto Parsons at under $1 million this coming season? The most obvious consequence is that he would still be a Rocket. The second clearest consequence is that he would become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, a risk that’s greater than most people care to be aware of. The last consequence is that Parsons would have a different but equally compelling reason to be angry at the Rockets.
If Parsons was insulted by the idea that Houston wanted to sign another max-level player before re-signing him, if Parsons had qualms with the idea that he couldn’t carry them to a championship as the third star on the team, he would certainly be upset with a team choosing to pay him less than a million dollars yet again. The move that armchair GMs across the nation cite that Houston got wrong was still going to be a problem either way. Kicking the can down the road would probably have been the better call, but the damage was going to happen either way. Overpay and lower your team’s ceiling or insult one of your key players. That’s the option set faced by Houston over and over.
The reason is that the Rockets are great at identifying and developing talent but lack the team culture necessary to hold onto them. Only the San Antonio Spurs have much success retaining their second and third tier players, and that requires the best Coach in the league and the best locker room guy in history in Popovich and Duncan respectively. For Houston, excellent role players see their game blossom, see the contracts teams want to hand them, and they do what any reasonable person would: they leave. The desire for more money and a bigger role are just normal ramifications of reserves and role players having amazing years.
Having your bench be too good is a problem players of NBA 2K games have wrestled with for years. Players demand more than the team can possibly give them in role, minutes and money. When Morey allegedly treats the team and players like a video game, should we be surprised that the video games predict the problem? The only real solution in the games is to trade those players, and the same goes for the NBA. The reason the Rockets should have kept Parsons on his rookie contract wasn’t to keep him around long-term, or to avoid offending him. Those were both probably lost causes. The real benefit would have been the ability to package him in a trade before he could bolt. And if Morey is as calculation as people think he is? He’s more aware of that loss than anyone else.